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Artist Advice Column: How To Write Music For TV / Film


We took a deeper dive into how write music for commercials earlier this month. Now it is time to start looking at other places you can place your music around that can not only get you paid, but also some important exposure. TV and movie sync deals can really help break an artist’s career if it is in a hit show and at the right point in a show.

You can always just have a song you wrote for an album get plucked by a music supervisor for that show or film, but making music you think will be picked up for a television show or film is a different animal. It is writing music that would fit into a storyline, possibly emulating the sound of a time period or what is popular today. If a show or movie doesn’t have the budget to license the biggest tracks of an era, they can go to a sync licensing company and have them provide something, which sets a similar mood from their extensive libraries at a fraction of the cost. Playing a song that has similar sounds to The Talking Heads won’t be the same as The Talking Heads, but it could work if you are trying to make a show from the 1970s and 1980s.

Scoring full TV series and films is different topic for people who want to get into composition and we are limiting this to sync. That involves completely different challenges as an artist and a writer and this is for placing one single (or a few if you are lucky) into a project on movie or TV show.

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Writing music for television may not seem as glamorous as film, but both are very important. If the show is picked up for multiple seasons, there will be more opportunities for placements in that series. Also syndication for television shows and moves means your track can be heard not just on the initial showing, but time and time again. With streaming transforming every aspect of the entertainment business, it means re-watching a certain movie or episode of a show is just a few clicks away.

There are a few constants when trying to get music into a big or small screen sync. One of them is making good music. There are hundreds of libraries filled with tracks that attempt to emulate a mood and can be placed as filler or “source” music for background moments in a scene. Some of those tracks won’t be very good, so if you write something that really pops in the 15-30 seconds that a supervisor is looking for, you will have a better chance. Also if you write a song that you initially thought you were just going to use for a TV or film sync, but instead found it could also be released as part of an album or a new loose single, then you have done two things at once.

Think about the television and film you watch. The cliffhanger moments, the comedic relief, the dramatic turns in a scene or the romantic kisses. What are the songs that play in the background? Go back and watch some iconic films or TV shows and get a better sense of that those have been like over the years, looking at scored and non-scored shows and movies. Your song has to be something that resonates. So if it is a scene that delivers on emotion, your song has to as well. Piano, strings and a strong melody are needed. Make a song with sad chords and then another with more uplifting chords. Sad chords are more popular these days in pop music, so it could be a better route to a new sync. 

For a dramatic action scene, don’t skip out on the drums and energetic parts. If you are using guitar, add plenty of it. With vocals, write the best song you can, but always remember to have an instrumental version because that may be what is chosen. Actors lines will take priority and then if you have to battle sound effects, vocals may not be able to mesh compared to just an instrumental so make sure to have both. 

Getting a TV and movie sync may seem tough with all of the gatekeepers and obstacles you have to overcome. But don't always shoot for the biggest movies first. See if you can get placements in small indie flicks that have smaller budgets and then build from there. Those films can take more risks with their music and if they blow up, develop a cult following, which follows the music as well. 

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